To Poach An Egg

Poached eggs have this strange sort of mystique about them that carries this sense of awe and terror with it and perhaps that is what propelled me on the small of adventure of learning to make them. One of the great wonders to me of food is how one can often go through so many elaborate steps to end up with something decent, and yet how often, the truly extraordinary meal is found through the most of simple of preparations. The poached egg is something luxurious and disconcerting in its very simplicity.

I've always had this little butterfly in my stomach when it comes to poached eggs, this deep desire to try one, to learn the art of making one, to master the gift of it- because that's really how I though of it. So the other morning when I donned my apron and set about the task of studying them, I was a little bit surprised to find that....well, that there isn't anything terribly technical or difficult about them.

Let me explain: as I have said, I donned the apron. I pulled the hair back. I pulled all sorts of pans and vinegars, utensils and small bowls, and a dozen eggs out of their respective hiding places. I watched videos. I read articles and blogs. I prepared to crack my knuckles, take a deep breath, and subdue those little suckers. I brought my water to a low simmer. I dropped my first egg (waiting for this moment in it's tiny bowl) into the water and.... panicked. It swirled and floated to the bottom, white fluff swirling out in its wake. My heart raced, my breath bated. I poked the egg- it released another bout of flotsam. In one swift movement I grabbed the pan from the burner and emptied it's contents into the sink, unable to bear the sight of that sad little egg any longer, its essence floating out behind it like some poor spirit. 

I returned to my research. I read the Julia Childs blurb in The French Chef Cookbook that my mother had given me. I watched THIS video. I read THIS article. And then it occurred to me: the art of poaching an egg is realizing that you don't master it, it masters you. All this time I thought the magic of a poached egg was some esoteric art when really, it's a matter of  patience. The key to a poached egg isn't some special equipment or culinary knowledge, I don't even think it's vinegar (although I know many swear it is)- No. The key to a perfectly poached egg is patience. It's a matter of watching the egg and waiting for the right moment. It's a matter of trusting the egg and the water to do what they probably already know how to do, chemically, all on their own. It's bringing the water to a simmer, creating a vortex in it's center, dropping the egg into the center of the vortex, and doing nothing. Don't poke it with a spatula. Don't rotate it against the edge of the pan. Don't touch the egg. Also, don't panic about the flotsam as it turns out (I think this might be the only bit of esoteric knowledge withheld from the rest of us to make the art of poaching an egg seem more mysterious to us). Let the egg be. After a minute or so, you can poke the egg- if you must- to make sure it's not sticking to the bottom of the pan, although the simmer should prevent this by sort of pushing it off- indeed, it will start floating not too long before it's done. At this point the only thing you have to do is decide if you like your yokes runny or not so runny. I like mine kind of in between (the result of having been made sick off of one too many runny eggs) so I cooked mine for about five to six minutes. Remove the egg using a slotted spoon and plunge it into a bowl of ice cold water for a moment to stop the cooking and make it easier to handle, pat lightly with a paper towel (who wants water all over their toast, or asparagus as it may be?), and serve in desired manner. It was that easy.

But because I generally like things to be difficult, I left mine in the ice water and kept on poaching. I tried sauce pans and stock pots, small pots with lids, whirlpool and no whirlpool, with vinegar and without vinegar- I even tried one with lemon juice which I read about during my studies- and none of them really made a difference on it's own. The key is the patience, is not touching the egg even though the little guy looks like he's dying and is wrenching your heart out with all of that scary looking flotsam. Just leave him be- he knows what he's doing- and I think that's the beauty of it, the sheer simplicity of it.


Anonymous said...

I might have to go try to poach an egg. It's a scary thought, it's true! I loved this, though, it was a lovely adventure to read about :)

Mary said...

Hi, Amber Lee! I know- it's strange how they have such a terrifying aura about them, isn't it? I found that the video I mentioned in the post helped a lot- he gave a really good idea of what the water is supposed to be like, temperature wise and with the little vortex. The only thing I did differently was omit the salt and clean the egg up a little bit before I photographed it- I kept seeing these pictures of poached eggs where they looked like soggy fried eggs and well, I like my food to look at least a little appetizing! It was weird though, I kept asking myself, "is it supposed to like a buffalo mozzarella?" Well, apparently it is! Good luck and thanks!